Burned wood, Griffith Park

Burned Wood, Griffith Park

It’s not quite been a year

since my friend Buck dared me to run the LA Marathon with her.

It had been almost 30 years since I last ran in earnest. For 20 of those 30 years I’d lived a life someone else described as a “bad Larry Clark photograph”.

I emerged from it all relatively unscathed, aside from a mild case of Hep-C and a seemingly unshakable sense of vague but powerful dissatisfaction.

As soon as I started training, spending hours at a time on my feet, 30 – 40 miles a week, pushing myself harder and having to learn how to really listen to my body (something I really didn’t need to do when I was an indestructible 19 year old), that vague dissatisfaction started to go away, at least for the duration of a run, and maybe even the day around it. I was doing something that I truly loved rather than trudging through one thing after another with indifference. Best of all, my runs were not at all dependent on other people. It was awesome.

The goal at the time was to run a marathon before I turned 50. I did it with a month to spare. Buck decided she was done. I decided I was just getting started. I ran another two months later down in San Diego. The week after that, a trail half marathon with my friend B.B.

B.B. was a newbie runner who embraced running zealously. She’s one of those enthusiastic people who approaches everything new to her with an evangelical zeal, which can cause problems because zealotry is not something you can apply to all your affairs. It just takes too much time and energy. For folks like B.B., enthusiasms have to wax and wane. I gave running 3 months.

There are enthusiasms, and then there are needs.

B.B. needed a man.

B.B. felt undefined without a boyfriend. Without definition, she floundered around a bit for something that she might be able to use as an identity. Running was one of those things. It was obvious, though, that nothing was going to replace a man. Having a man to rush home to, having a man to share every minute with, finding a love that merges two identities into one, that’s what B.B. needed.

As long as B.B. was looking for a man, there would be room for some of her enthusiasms, like running. Once she found one, her focus would be entirely on love and making the relationship work, and there would be no room for anything not necessary for survival. Once things were secure and possession seemed assured, she’d be able to relax a bit and engage again in some of those enthusiasms.

I need to come clean about my skepticism regarding love. Love in the modern sense – romantic love – is a sort of obsessive, possessive, selfish emotion that seems antithetical to the selfless, unconditional, spiritual love that Trappist monk Thomas Merton writes so beautifully about in his book “No Man Is An Island”. There’s even an awkward new psychological term for this selfish, obsessive love. It’s called “Limerence”, which is in part described as a set of reactions that occur “where misperceptions meet adversity in the context of a romance.” It’s not a beautiful, selfless, forever kind of love, but fearful, possessive, selfish, obsessive, sometimes angry, often ecstatic, panicked, over-the-top…pretty much everything that love should not be.

Whatever you call it, I’ve never seen any long term good come out of it.

Here’s what this has to do with running:

It is, in large part, what I run from.

An old high school friend who now lives in Eureka, told me about the Redwoods marathon and offered a place to stay. It sounded great: Redwoods is a small marathon (300 entrants) done by the same crew who put on Avenue of the Giants in the spring; it’s beautiful, it would be a chance to visit with an old friend, and the timing was right as far as training goes.

B.B. decided she wanted to join me (although I had not yet committed to the race). She paid her entry fee and got her bib number. Meanwhile, I injured myself. I was off my feet for a month. B.B. found her soulmate and had to stop training. Love conquered everything.

Here’s what else this has to do with running: Almost without exception, I feel trapped whenever I have to depend on someone & even more trapped when someone is depending on me. (Romance is particularly exhausting. I am far too vague and impractical, it seems, although I cannot think of anything more vague and impractical than romantic love.) I’m a bit hypervigilant about what I perceive as danger; this comes from a childhood that seemed to have an abundance of it. Loud, sudden noises, emotions, or movements make me jump.

Growing up I witnessed brutality and was told it was love. I witnessed fear and was told it was love. My very first experiences of love were as a witness to a love that could turn on a dime. I saw those dynamics play themselves out over and over with different people and in different ways, and by the time I was old enough for it I knew I wanted to break the cycle of violence, which meant break the cycle of that thing that everyone called love.

Alone on a narrow trail cresting a hill, storm clouds all above me, wind whipping through the grass, 6 miles in to a 12 mile run, with all the city and all the people and all their “love” way down below where none of it can get to me, that’s when I feel free. I’m there alone, I got up there alone, I’ll get back down alone, I’ve got enough water, my legs feel great, and I really don’t need anyone, that’s when I feel free.

Right around this time last year, the idea was to run a marathon before I turned 50. Now, with my slightly obsessive desire for symmetry, it becomes important to run some 50s while I’m still 50. Ultras sound more and more attractive. It just seems to me that 50K through the high desert in December with 300 other runners is going to be much more freeing than 26 miles through the city with 25,000 other runners. 50 miles along the American River near Sacramento 12 days before I turn 51 sounds like a great idea, too. Both are new challenges, in that I’ve never run a race of either distance.

There’s something about the world of ultras that seems particularly appealing.

For some runners I know it’s all about speed and winning or at least beating your friends and that sort of competitiveness that brings back unpleasant memories of my own track-and-field days. I was a great runner, but my mental game consisted of nothing but fear, and I hate going back there.

Ultra folks are a different crowd. Every ultra runner I know seems in part to be running from something. Every ultra runner I know seems to be haunted by some sort of personal demons. Every ultra runner I know seems to find the same sort of freedom I look for and often find when I’m all alone on those hills.

18 replies
  1. Heather King
    Heather King says:

    Oh I have read that Dorothy Tannov book: Love and Limerence! The agony of knowing you’re being selfish and obsessive (I come at it mostly from the other end) but unable to do much about it, except endure, bear the tension, set the person free, and ponder what actual love may be, or look like…I could be wrong but maybe the one thing worse than “limerence” is to be so ashamed of your heart that you have no love at all…so it’s always good news when we can love running, or rain, or a burned-out tree trunk…even people sometimes.

    gorgeous photos. great writing. I like the BACK of the Hollywood sign…

  2. geoff
    geoff says:

    I think that most of the time when someone’s immersed in this limerence, the agony of knowing there’s nothing they can do about it plays out in their minds as an agony of not being able to do enough about it. In other words, there is no acceptance of the fact that nothing can be done (except to endure). Folks don’t suffer in silence, but rather struggle loudly. At least that’s been my experience.

    Being able to love running, or rain, or writing, is great stuff because it takes the pressure off. The trick to loving people is probably all about learning how to love them the same way one might love a pet – that unconditional thing we always hear evolved persons talking about. Unfortunately, in the real world, romantic love always seems transactional, with both parties eventually convinced they are getting ripped off in the deal: too high a price to pay for such shoddy goods.

    Beautiful rainy day today. My injured foot is healing. I think I will go spend a few miles playing in the mud.

  3. elodie
    elodie says:

    I have to disagree. We love pets (and even feel sympathy for lethal animals) because we don’t attribute any will to them, so they can’t be culpable. Humans are complicated. Even when we might bear the noblest love, we’re motivated by more than just that. Limerent interactions, and romantic relationships generally, are a tangle of drives, motives, impulses. Even if we’re aware of these conflicts, I don’t know that behaviour can be subject to absolute control. A single gesture or act can be pure, I think, but relationships in their entirety are rarely, if ever, solely about love.

    I think I must have your weather. It is perfectly golden in Toronto: cool, clear with a slight breeze. Near the lake where it’s warmer, the trees were wearing their Sunday best. It’s very easy to love running today.

    • elodie
      elodie says:

      Oops, I should have written that we love pets unconditionally etc… Clearly, love for pets isn’t that simple either, but the unconditional part hinges on a concept of will, I think.

    • geoff
      geoff says:

      I think the trick is acknowledging what you’ve said: that relationships aren’t solely about love. This relationship-based-on-romantic-love business is kind of new, I think. Back in the day it was more about marrying so you could join two kingdoms up, or she has the money and he has the nobility but zero cash…basically, they were business relationships.

      Love is for lovers, and until recently lovers were something kept on the side.

      “Love” is one general area that I believe myself to be especially unqualified in. Pretty much all I can do is quote from Thomas Merton, whose stuff sounds very good once I get past the two buzzwords I respond so negatively to: “love” and “God”. If while reading his stuff I can manage to remind myself not to have kneejerk reactions, I get something out of his work that I think is a valuable theoretical framework.

      In terms of subjecting behavior to control, it’s a practice-not-perfection sort of thing. This cycles back to an earlier dialogue about Buddhism, the letting go (moment by moment) of the various cravings, graspings, desires that bring about “suffering”.

      With regards to pets: I put very few demands on animals. If I demand nothing of them, everything I get from them is a gift.

      How was your race? As beautiful as the day, I hope.

    • elodie
      elodie says:

      This is going to sound terribly cynical, but marriages are still about business relationships. Maybe they’re business relationships with a lot of affection, but I’ve yet to see a successful marriage model that doesn’t include a joint capability to run a household like a small business. I suppose if I want to put a soft-focus haze on it, I’d describe marriage as sailing a boat. All kinds of small but important duties have to be fulfilled in a coordinated partnership to be efficient, otherwise you’ll run out of food and drinking water. You can always drop anchor or beach the boat for a while for amusement, but you have to make it to port in a reasonable time. Love alone isn’t going to get you there.

      Well, if you can subject behaviour to some control I think there’s always hope. In relationships there’s the added dimension of an _expectation_ that the other person has more control, more of the time, than they really do. That doesn’t have much to do with love, I don’t think.

      Do you think it’s possible to love a child like you’d love an animal? Supposedly, love for a child is closer to the ideal, but I don’t know any parent who resists making demands of their child.

      • elodie
        elodie says:

        Hmm, my race was flawed, but it was a good one. I think I’ve run before, creatively — maybe playfully? I hadn’t raced that way before today. I grew, I think.

      • geoff
        geoff says:

        It doesn’t sound cynical. It sounds practical. I hope I’m not coming off as an advocate of romantic love as a solution to anything. The more marriages have become about love rather than about practicalities like running a household, merging kingdoms, or paying for the upkeep on an estate, the more they fall apart.

        As far as loving children, I can’t even begin to speculate, not having ever had any.

        When Thomas Merton writes about love, he is generally not writing about romantic love, btw. The dude was a monk. He’s often talking about love of man for God, and the love of God for man.

        But he also talks about love between people: “a selfish love seldom respects the rights of the beloved to be an autonomous person…” That would be limerance.

        He also adds a dimension to unconditional love that we never hear talked about: “If the one loved receives love selfishly, the lover is not satisfied. He sees his love has failed to make the beloved happy” And that’s where it all falls apart in real life, because what are the odds of two people being capable of giving and receiving that? We’re fucked.

        Being a monk starts looking good.

        There’s a lot more to this book (“No Man is an Island” 1955) It’s just that it’s almost impossible for me to read it without starting to have muscle spasms. Someone suggested I read some Thomas Merton, (I don’t recall why) and of course I happen to pick up a book that immediately sails off into seas I’d just as soon leave uncharted. The further you go, the closer you get to the place where there are monsters and everything spills off the edge of the earth. I’m a reluctant passenger on that doomed voyage.

      • elodie
        elodie says:

        I don’t have any children either, but I don’t let that stop me from observing, or outright speculating. Children are about the most selfish recipients of love imaginable, but again we don’t demand as much from them so this is okay. Anyway, I think if it’s hard for me to imagine an ideal love from parent to child in a healthy relationship, the prospects for adult ones look pretty grim.

        I don’t know if I can support the idea of happiness of the beloved as the measure of ideal love either. To me, that sounds like a prison to be responsible for someone else’s happiness. Honestly, I don’t know that even receiving unconditional love would make me happy — not as completely as one might be led to believe, anyway. I guess that proves your point though: I’m fucked according to Merton.

        I borrowed a couple of his books. He’s not exactly light reading. I need to sit down and give him some focused attention when I’m not so sleep-deprived. I know about Merton, like that he was a monk, but actual reading of the texts is a rather gaping hole in my liberal arts education.

        I must not be ready to give up completely though. Being a monk doesn’t look good to me.

  4. Heather King
    Heather King says:

    Well, maybe you have to be either a nun (i.e. monk) or a whore. Maybe those are the only two extremes that can “contain” the blazing fire of the human heart. Limerence–the jealousy and possession often generated after being struck by beauty, shot through the heart, and sort of not knowing what to do with it, not knowing how to contain it–is obviously not good. Out of being “beside-oneself,” literally not knowing which way to turn, you impose the intensity of your feelings (Plato speaks of wanting to fly up and being unable to) on the poor object-of-your-love who may but is probably not experiencing anything remotely comparable.

    But the incandescent falling-in-love experience that sometimes underlies limerence (I’m not talking about a schoolgirl/boy crush now, but the once or twice in a lifetime lightning bolt that rips you and everything about you apart) is not in itself unhealthy or sick or selfish (as I thought it was for a long time, and berated myself for): in fact, it’s a kind of suffering you don’t in any way initially expect or ask for, and then end up passively (same root word as passion, interestingly)undergoing, if you’re lucky without killing yourself or anyone else. I’ts the journey Dante undertook in the The Divine Comedy. And in my experience it ends up being a kind of (long, slow, unbelievably painful) purification process during which you go from thinking “I’d die to “get” this person to “love” me,” to “I’d die rather than in the SMALLEST way impose upon or infringe upon this person’s freedom to be exactly who he or she is and to do exactly as he or she likes.” But, also interestingly, it’s not a process that leaches you of desire and heat and passion: it’s a process that focuses the heat somehow. That consents to bear the tension of the desire being unconsummated in the way you want it to be and in the tension, realizing the whole experience is/was a kind of window onto the divine. Because you realize the love is eternal. It makes you love everything and everyone more, by which I mean makes you more willing to sacrifice, to not have things your way and to offer yourself up and participate in the world anyway (instead of isolate and brood, which is my default mode). What I vehemently object to is the idea that the goal is ever to become balanced and calm and healthy and whole in this kind of tamped-down, sanitized, flat, emotionless way. No!! Burn me at the stake before that.

    As for an actual, face-to-face, earthly, human ongoing relationship of, say, marriage: I throw my hands up! I don’t know how anyone manages that!…so I wander about in the rain, smelling the wild fennel…rejoicing, suffering, wondering, and not understanding any of it, except to know it is always good to know someone else is wondering, too…

  5. elodie
    elodie says:

    That’s a lovely description of romantic love! I have to confess I enjoyed reading it more than I’m curious about it. I am probably one of those moderate, tamped-down people. I may have been the object of selfish limerence, once or twice. (How can one know, really?) In any case, both led to decidedly negative outcomes which took the gloss off of that brand of love. Having never been moved to such urgent passion, it’s easier to give up.

    I wonder though if it’s as truly passive as you describe. If you don’t initially expect or ask for it, you must at least be receptive to it, no? Or, do you suppose it’s not a matter of choice at all, and only a matter of being born with the destiny to be struck?

    • Heather King
      Heather King says:

      Elodie, that’s an excellent question! I do think we’re more susceptible to or receptive at certain “seasons” to one of these cataclysmic shake-ups…Late adolescence. Middle age, when our bodies and psyches are again transforming, except that this time the experience is overlain with the shadow of death…Also, for me it had something to do with never having had children. I never REALLY wanted them, but until I reached the age where it was no longer a possibility, I hadn’t really faced the fact that I’d chosen to forego what by all accounts is a peak human experience. And I also hadn’t counted on the deep desire, as I got older, to leave something behind when I died. I’d never quite experienced (certainly not with my ex-husband) the INTENSE procreative urge that wanted to get together with this other person and “give birth” to something that was greater than either of us could have created on our own. Not a child, at that point, but a shared goal, a shared life, a kind of sacramental offering up…which on the practical level simply means that I wanted to look at him, make him laugh, cook him a meal…but that’s the whole point maybe. To me those things ARE sacramental. To me every encounter has eternal significance. The next person I meet—the homeless guy up on Sunset and Alvarado, the woman at the cleaners–could have an interaction that changes the course of the whole world. So in that sense, yeah, esp. at the particular time of my life (I was also just coming out of a divorce, the death of my father, and a little bout with cancer) I was maybe “primed” to be “set on fire”…

      I’m enjoying your lively comments, questions, and interchange with Geoff…

      • Heather King
        Heather King says:

        Okay, you two, I have lost my mind and copied out this long-ass passage from Josef Pieper’s Enthusiasm and Divine Madness: On the Platonic Dialogue of Phaedrus. I am no Plato scholar and have not even read Phaedrus but I still got something out of this book, and I think it’s somehow pertinent to our discussion..

        “It is in the nature of man as a physical and spiritual being that he be open to shattering emotion, susceptible to being carried away. The passions animae cannot be silenced without leading to inhumanity, either the inhumanity of rigid rationality or of brutish sensuality—both of which have in common the qualities of being “unromantic,” “objective,” and “safe from emotion.” Real man is a being by nature given to shattering emotion.” [p. 23]

        “But what is meant by mania? The word is often translated frenzy or madness. But “madness” seems to be an inadequate and misleading definition. In the first place, the word connotes unsoundness and irrationality….

        [But i]f we consider all the aspects of mania which Plato mentions, we shall have to say that he uses the word to mean, primarily, a being-beside-oneself, a loss of command over oneself, surrender of autarchic independence and self-control; a state in which we are not active, but passive. We do not act, but suffer something; something happens to us. French scholars, in interpreting this passage in Plato, speak of transport [footnote omitted], that is, a condition of being carried away out of the center of one’s own being. But all these alternatives convey only one element of what Plato means: the element of weakness or, if we will, of sickness and “derangement.” Yet it is also conceivable that this being-beside-oneself may not be caused by mental disturbance, not by poison or drugs, but by a divine power. The Deity is the truly active source from which something happens to man. For this very reason, we cannot speak simply of madness or frenzy without further qualifying the words. If the word enthusiasm were not so debased in English, it would in fact most fittingly describe what Plato intended, and indeed he himself uses it in the sense of “being filled with the god.” In the middle of the Phaedrus, Socrates speaks of a man thus possessed by mania. “The multitude,” he says, “regard him as being out of his wits, for they know not that he is full of a god [enthusiazon].”

        Now Plato scarcely asserts that anyone who is shaken by erotic emotion is filled with the god, so that all forms of Eros are nothing more nor less than theia mania. Such romantic ideas are not to found in Plato. However, Socrates’ speech does maintain that erotic emotion may also be one way in which man can partake of “the greatest blessings”—provided man does not corrupt the erotic emotion by, for example, refusing to pay the price of receptivity to the divine madness. The price is a surrender of his autonomy; he must throw himself open to the god, rather than lock the doors of his soul by choosing sensual pleasures alone.” [pp. 49-50]

        I’m not a runner myself, but I think I can understand something of the focus and drive behind running. And I’m thinking maybe running is a form of accepting to pay the price of the “divine madness.” You surrender your autonomy to the extent that you choose not to lie on the couch watching reality shows and eating bad food; you choose to consent to or undergo a certain amount of pain—of discipline, training, risk, etc.—the result being that, in spite of the pain, you’re more free, more receptive to emotion, more fully alive. I don’t think it’s an accident that when I was googling for images of penitents—I was thinking of the pilgrims on Good Friday who crawl up mountains on their knees—I came across a photo of Geoff Cordner’s bloody knee that he’d sustained while running…So I love that running is about so much more than running, writing is about so much more than writing, and in the end it is all somehow connected…and all somehow “Ultra”!…

      • elodie
        elodie says:

        Daily running, after a time, does not have much pain at all. It is to me such a rich pleasure that discipline is more often required to resist running when I shouldn’t. Running for a lifetime demands obedience to the limits of the body, as well as the needs of the soul, which I think Geoff is coming to grips with gradually. Your instinct is right though that daily running often has some feeling of the devotional. I think I’d been running this way for a long time, but I began to do it more deliberately — thoughtfully, about a month ago shortly after some discussions about Buddhism. When you evoked the every day sacramental offering earlier, my everyday run is what I thought of.

        I think racing is a more obvious example of opening oneself to divine madness. The absolute distance or speed is not important, just that the trial be close to, or in excess of one’s limits. In my last race Sunday which I mentioned above, my surrender of autonomy came in the form of declining to measure effort in a rational or strategic way. It was really a sacrifice of focus or drive. In racing, this is a tremendous risk, usually a grave mistake, which is why I characterised the run as flawed. Pain is inevitable in all races, but one can always choose not to pay the price any longer. You can slow, or walk, or quit entirely. There is a portion of every race where the runner must willfully consent to receive the fire over and over again. Running in a haphazard way lights that flame much sooner.

        The race was on my deceased mother’s birthday over a course that travels by the hospital where she spent her last month, and the cemetery where she’s buried. Apart from the physical duress there is much more for me to cope with every time I run that race — it’s perhaps more like a pilgrimage, except that word doesn’t have the connotation of levity or fun. Once I relinquished control, I couldn’t anticipate any of what followed, except for the pain: perfect, white-hot, and at the end, all-consuming. But this time, in the heart of the fire an equally perfect ecstasy, such that consent was not difficult, but utterly compelling. There were moments shot through with sudden light, the music of a child’s exclamation: “Wow Mom, look at all the runners! So loud!” There were miles over which I laboured through black despair and anger, learned the shape of fragility and desire, but even in my wildest rage, there was nothing I wanted more than to be there, in that aching, beautiful, ugly moment, running into the fire. Maybe most surprising to me, there was a sense of play woven through all those miles, the faintest thread of elemental wonder.

        After several days of struggling with the meaning of this, your comment comes at a moment when I’m at last prepared to receive it.

  6. Heather King
    Heather King says:

    The only appropriate response to that beautifully-felt, -thought, and -written reply is probably silence, but my own thoughts fired in many directions, just one of which I’ll put down here.

    Apropos of your observation that in a race, to sacrifice focus and drive is a tremendous risk–the Crucifixion was Christ’s “race.” His whole life was a preparation. He warmed up by sweating tears of blood the night before in the Garden of Gethsemane. And on the day of his greatest contest, as we all would–or would if we thought they’d sufficiently appreciate/understand/sympathize–he invited his mother…

  7. Heather King
    Heather King says:

    YET MORE!!
    As I said, your comment sparked thoughts in many directions for me. And though they’re still unpolished and no doubt incoherent, here, in their stream-of-consciousness state, for all the world to see, they are…

    The print of a detail from Fra Angelico’s “St. Dominic In Adoration of Christ” that sits on a little shelf in my bathroom, across from the toilet.Rivulets of blood running down from Christ’s feet. St. Dominic at the foot of the cross lost in wonder, sorrow, pity, fear…The feet of a runner; the feet of ballet dancers (another group of obsessively focused passionistas); the gangrenous feet of my father when he died (true to my family’s “If you ignore things long enough they’ll go away” ethos, both he and my mother had ignored the diabetic sores until it was too late); my own feet which, when I was in such severe psychic anguish, became afflicted with a horrible eczema-type skin ailment so impervious to all treatment that one dermatologist finally told me the only thing that might work was chemo. The summer nights when I’d lie awake, consumed by longing–sexual, existential, holy–unable to sleep for the itching, burning torment, rising every half-hour to bathe my bleeding feet in a tub of ice water. An article I just read about the pilgrims who walk the Santiago de Compostela through the Pyrenees into Spain, as pilgrims have for centuries, quoting a man who, at one hostel along the route, washes the guests’ feet in a basin, by the light of a candle. “Many visitors are not Christians,” he said. “They enjoy trekking, they make the journey for sport, but when they receive this gift, they sense the meaning. They don’t say anything, they just weep.”

    How, also in psychic anguish, I got in my car in the fall of ’07 and drove from L.A. to the coast of New Hampshire in some kind of ritual trip to “Mother,” the year we knew she had Alzheimer’s and that pretty soon there would no longer be a “home” to go to. Not so much because I wanted her to comfort me, though I did, and knew she wouldn’t and couldn’t, but because I wanted to do something hard for her, to show my love even though I knew she wouldn’t recognize or “understand” my pilgrimage (I also went to Mass every day for the 7-week trip). How on the way back I stopped in the Minnesota town where the guy I was crazy about had been raised, and (with his blessing) met his parents. I wanted to see the prairie that had given birth to him. I wanted to thank the gods. I wanted to attend Mass at the church he’d attended as a child (though he now hates and scorns the Church himself). I wanted to tell his mother, and did: “You raised a beautiful son.”

    How even as a sophomore in high school, on the girls’ basketball team, I had a kind of Greek sense of the nobility of the athlete. I once wrote that I’d been willing to die for those girls, my teammates, and I wasn’t entirely kidding. How just a couple of weeks ago, I wrote to a convert friend: “The triumph of love over death isn’t about winning, but as St. Paul said, you have to be a kind of athlete. You have to train in loneliness, in poverty, in being persecuted, in pain, and misunderstood, in resisting a culture that encourages you to anaesthesize yourself, to not feel or think.”

    I thought of a column I’d read years ago by Ron Rolheiser: “The Agony In The Garden – The Place To Ready Ourselves For Ordeals”

    Luke’s account of Gethsemane says this of Jesus:”And being in a certain agony (AGONIA), he prayed more earnestly.” This word, AGONIA, doesn’t just describe the intensity of Jesus’ suffering, but also his readying of himself for the painful task that awaits. How?

    An athlete doesn’t enter the arena of competition without first properly warming up and, at the time this text was written, a serious athlete would warm up for a competition by first working himself or herself into a certain intense sweat, a lather, an AGONIA, so that he or she wouldn’t enter the competition with cold muscles.

    Gethsemane teaches that to enter the spiritual arena, one too must first be properly warmed up. Cold muscles are a hazard here as well: We cannot walk from self-pampering to self-sacrifice, from living in fear to acting in courage, and from cringing before the unknown to taking the leap of faith, without first, like Jesus in Gethsemane, readying ourselves through a certain AGONIA, that is, without undergoing a painful sweat that comes from facing what will be asked of us if we continue to live the truth…In order to live in real courage we must die before we die. In any situation that is dominated by fear…we need to be living the resurrection already before we die. …[W]e need to choose truth, integrity, and duty even if it means pain and death, otherwise the deep instinct for self-preservation will forever cause us to be more concerned about our own safety and comfort than about anything else and fear will always dominate our lives.

    In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus dies before he dies and in that way readies himself for what awaits him”…

    You wrote: “[M]y surrender of autonomy came in the form of declining to measure effort in a rational or strategic way. It was really a sacrifice of focus or drive. In racing, this is a tremendous risk, usually a grave mistake”…Here, again, is passion/passivity. The intention, focus, and drive remain absolute, it seems to me: but the object is no longer to win but to offer oneself up, to relinquish control over the results (while still, of course, wanting to “win.” i.e. there’s nothing in this kind of sacrifice of resignation or giving up). What is that but faith, I wonder, a voluntary “death” giving rise to something unexpected, astonishing, and new? The terrible risk, the possible grave mistake, when we let go of the outcome, of our insistence on control is the urge, I think, behind all true pilgrimage. We’re moved to leave something behind and go, without knowing why or how the journey will end. We become willing to not be “productive” or efficient or relevant or successful or triumphant in a worldly sense. We become willing to enter into a different order… Interesting that the “aching, ugly, beautiful moment” you described could equally, perhaps, have been applied to childbirth. That you felt a childlike exultation. And of course that your very running of the race was associated with your mother…

    I thought of how deep down, no matter how old we are, whether our mothers are dead or alive, not matter how conflicted we are about our them, we want their love and approval and to make them proud. We want them to be in the audience when we win the prize or make the winning touchdown or read from the book we’ve written or run our race. That was when I was struck by the thought that the Crucifixion was Christ’s “race.” He, too, declined to measure effort in a rational or strategic way. He, too, took the gravest of risks. And as we all would, or would if we thought they’d care enough, he invited his mother.

    “Stabat mater,” goes a medieval hymn: the Mother is still standing.


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